Rock 'n' Roles

Times Staff Writer

In the middle of the victorious Tampa Bay Buccaneers' locker room Sunday sat a giant white rock. It remained in its case, a metallic trunk with foam padding, accorded the type of protective luggage that might be used to transport valuable electronics.

It's the metaphoric center of this team, and players from every corner of the room kept referring to it. Keep banging away and eventually the rock -- or whatever obstacle lies in your path -- will shatter.

"That rock is still out there, and we're still pounding," linebacker Derrick Brooks said after the Buccaneers had beaten the Philadelphia Eagles, 27-10, in the NFC championship game. "We're still pounding."

Those words were first uttered by defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, then quickly adopted by Coach Jon Gruden. And every time you hear them echoed by his players this week, they remind why the Buccaneers are in San Diego: the typhoon that brought Gruden to Tampa, and the speed with which the players bought into him.

"To think that we could change coaches and get to the Super Bowl, that's a lot of credit to the coaching staff and that's a credit to the core players, to the guys that didn't get thrown off their game, that came in with a focus," General Manager Rich McKay said.

"Really, this all starts in March. I've got to give those guys credit, because March was following an ugly February."

At this time a year ago, the Buccaneers were a mess. A team that seemed poised to take the proverbial Next Step for a couple of seasons instead stumbled backward. Ownership dumped Coach Tony Dungy, with word of the impending move leaking before the team's playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles and serving to undercut his authority in the critical days leading up to the game.

The Buccaneers thought they had a deal with Bill Parcells, widely considered the best coach in the business. Then Parcells backed out. So they interviewed 49er Coach Steve Mariucci. He decided to stay in San Francisco.

Gruden was in Oakland, but as he eyed the vacant Notre Dame job in December, the Raiders lost their focus and slipped from the Super Bowl picture. Gruden had lost the team, and Al Davis had lost faith in him. But Gruden was still under contract for two more years.

"I was at a situation in my career where something had to give," Gruden said. "Either you stay or go."

And the Buccaneers needed a coach. A proven coach. Gruden was 22-10 in his last two seasons with the Raiders, making the franchise matter again. But Davis hung tough, demanding two first-round draft picks, two second-round picks and $8 million to let Gruden go.

"That's just the price of poker," McKay said. "It is what it is.

"It ended up being a one-night conversation. Really, we made no headway until [Executive Vice President] Joel Glaser was able to talk to Mr. Davis. At the point Mr. Davis felt like it was in his best interest, we were able to make the deal."

Some players, especially on defense, were bitter to see Dungy cut loose after three straight trips to the playoffs. They were a little skeptical when Gruden arrived.

"Coach [Dungy] had an influence on this team," Brooks said. "He built this defense. At the same time, give Jon Gruden credit for coming in, knowing that he had a team very loyal to Coach Dungy. He had to come in and sell his way of doing things to this team. From the first team meeting, two things he did: He came in and recognized what Coach Dungy did -- and then he squashed it, saying, 'We need to move on to win a world championship.' "

Gruden brought in Ronnie Lott, the Hall of Fame safety with the 49ers and Raiders, to address the team. He told them that no matter how they felt about the old regime or the new regime, the goal remained the same: winning a Super Bowl. It was bigger than any one person.

"That gave me a new perspective," Brooks said. "After seven years of playing football, I had a new perspective."

The whole team had a new attitude. And the offense, the weak link that always disappeared in the most crucial situations, had a new approach.

"What he does is, he makes good calls," wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson said of Gruden.

He cited the touchdown he'd scored on a nine-yard slant pattern Sunday.

"We would never have called that play under Tony Dungy," Johnson said. "We just wouldn't have, because that's just not his philosophy.

"Not that he's a bad coach, it's not his philosophy. Don't attack it like that. But under Gruden, it worked for us."

More remarkably, he got the defense to reach another level. Already ranked among the league's best, this season it became the best, allowing the fewest yards in the NFL and setting four team records.

"Jon has a way of challenging you as an individual and as a team, and I think that's one of his great strengths and motivation," safety John Lynch said. "I think, by the way we competed this off-season, by the way he structured practices to work on things that he felt we needed to work on, we are a much better unit."

Defensive lineman Warren Sapp said he would jump off a bridge if Gruden asked. The all-pro trash-talker even honored Gruden's request to mute the yapping during the week before the NFC championship game against the Eagles.

Every bit of trust the Buccaneers placed in him was rewarded when Gruden, by all accounts, won the battle of wits with Philadelphia's Andy Reid, the NFL coach of the year. Every dollar and draft pick invested paid off as well.

"I realize the expectations and all that stuff," Gruden said. "I'm never going to live up to the expectations. I can personally tell you that. I really believe that. No one's going to put any more pressure on me than myself. To win and reach [the Super Bowl] is the greatest day of my professional career."

All because he and his team followed the same advice.

"Pound the rock," Sapp said. "Get in the tunnel, don't look for any light, just dig, dig, dig, and all of a sudden you'll be in the lap of luxury.

"We've been digging for years, and finally the light shined on us a little bit."

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